Posts from the ‘Maryland’ Category

Frederick Aiken The Attorney – Historians Weigh In

From the moment that the American Film Company released The Conspirator, questions have been raised about the films accuracy regarding the lead counsel, Frederick Aiken. Was he, as FoxNews host Bill O’Reilly would opine, a “pinhead” or a “patriot?” You be the judge.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Little has been written about Frederick Aiken. This Week in the Civil War posted some preliminary materials back in April, and they it still seems to be the only biographical material out there. You can read the biography post here.

The mystery goes even deeper than that. The owner of this blog made a records request for Aiken’s personnel files from the National Archives earlier this year. Instead of receiving a packet with all the mundane details of his assignments and pay records, the most Civil War personnel files contain, the Archives sent back one sheet of paper that said, “Record not located.”

The life of Frederick Aiken is still a mystery. Perhaps someday we’ll know more about his story but until then, we’ll dig up every rudimentary detail that we can find.

In the meantime, the Surratt House Museum website has an index of .pdf files on the trial that you can download here. It would be a great place to start your own research into the career of Frederick Aiken.

Two key books were written that details the Assassination of President Lincoln, with suitable references to the young attorney. I highly recommend you purchase a copy of each book in order to understand the context of the quotations. (For the record, I do not have any financial interest in either of these books.)

The first one is Assassin’s Accomplice by Dr. Kate Clifford Larsen, from which the film, The Conspirator, was based upon.

By the close of court on May 10, the rest of the defendants were still without counsel. Mudd’s lawyer, Brent, backed out, so the following day, Mudd petitioned the court for change of counsel to Frederick Stone, Herold’s lawyer. Mary arrived in court with new counsel as well: Frederick Aiken and John W. Clampitt, the new associates in Reverdy Johnson’s large practice in Washington. Aiken, born and raised in Massachusetts, had passed the bar in Vermont and was very active in Democratic Party politics. During the war he had worked as a correspondent for the New York Times, and had been practicing law only a short time when he was called upon to help defend Surratt. Clampitt was a Washingtonian, and had only recently begun practicing law with Aiken in Johnson’s law office. He, too, was an active Democratic Party loyalist. Johnson, in the meantime, would remain Mary’s lead counsel, in spite of his own heavy case load. [pg. 145]

On Friday, May 12, the court reconvened at ten o’clock in the morning. Sam Arnold had successfully retained counsel: General Thomas Ewing Jr., a Union officer and successful Washington lawyer. He would represent not only Arnold, but Ed Spangler and Samuel Mudd, too, as co-counsel with Frederick Stone. Michael O’Laughlen hired Walter S. Cox, a local attorney and professor at Columbia College, who would also assist Stone with Arnold’s defense. George Atzerodt’s family retained William E. Doster for him. Doster had been a former provost marshall in Washington, and would prove to be a contentious defense counsel. The court would prevail upon him to take Payne on as a client, too, after Payne’s first lawyer backed out and no other was willing to represent him. [pg. 145]

Whether Johnson ultimately decided that Mary as guilty or not remains unknown. However, within a few days, Johnson rarely appeared in court, leaving Mary’s defense to his inexperienced associates Clampitt and Aiken. [pp. 146-147]

After Weichmann and Lloyd’s extensive testimonies, Reverdy Johnson virtually gave up on Mary’s defense. His absence was duly noticed. Rumors began spreading that Johnson knew Mary was guilty and had therefore deserted her. As early as May 16, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Johnson “had abandoned cross-questioning the witnesses, and is preparing an argument to prove that the court cannot try these cases, for lack of power.” Johnson’s decision to not appear regularly in court as part of Mary’s defense team, and to leave her in the hands of his inexperienced associates, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, would have tragic consequences. [pg. 154]

Almost every day, further negative testimony implicated Mary and her son John ever more deeply in Booth’s plans. Reverdy Johnson’s new associates, Aiken and Clampitt, now without their experienced lead counsel, seemed helpless to stem the flow of damaging evidence. [pg. 155]

Mary’s co-council Frederick Aiken announced to the court that the defendants’ attorneys had met privately to discuss the order of presentation. They agreed that testimony relating to Mrs. Surratt would launch the first phase of the defense of the conspirators.  [pg. 156]

When cross-examined by Judge Holt, Eliza noted that Mrs. Surratt never appeared to have difficulty recognizing people by gaslight in the parlor. Aiken’s efforts to bolster Mary’s claim that poor eyesight and dim light had prevented her from recognizing Payne on the night of her arrest were ineffectual. The day had not gone well for Mary’s defense.          [pg. 158]

Mary’s defense had taken a beating. By the time court adjourned that Saturday afternoon, Aiken and Clampitt had only succeeded in making the prosecution’s case even stronger. Even at this early date, Mary’s prospects looked bleak. Clampitt and Aiken needed to regroup. They returned to court on Monday ready to take a different tack. [pg. 169]

It would be another two days before Aiken and Clampitt would provide their own closing summation, even though Johnson knew that they were inexperienced attorneys and it could prove disastrous to leave Mary’s final defense arguments in their hands. Just as he did through most of the trial, he left Mary’s life – and left Mary’s life in their hands.         [pg. 190]

The other book is American Brutus by Michael  W. Kauffman.

The defendants were still scrambling to find lawyers, and in a short time most of the accused had found someone. John Atzerodt hired William E. Doster, the former provost marshal of Washington, to represent his brother. Walter S. Cox, a law professor at Columbian College, agreed to defend O’Laughlen, and David Herold retained the services of Frederick Stone, from a distinguished Charles County famliy. Dr. Mudd and Sam Arnold would both be represented by General Thomas Ewing, Jr., former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court and a brother-in-law of General William T. Sherman. All were fine attorneys, but there were not enough to go around. Spangler and Powell were still unrepresented and after several rejections, Mary Surratt could secure only the services of two neophytes, John W. Clampitt and Frederick A. Aiken. Neither had experience in a capital case, and Aiken was just completing his first year of practice. [pg. 340]

Many of the objections raised by Frederick Aiken, the attorney for Mary Surratt, would have been overruled in any court. Aiken was not an experienced lawyer. He did not understand the rules of evidence, and his frequent missteps played as heavily against his client as anything the commission decided. He rarely came prepared and often failed to anticipate what his own witnesses would say…Perhaps Aiken’s worst blunder was calling Augustus Howell to the stand. Howell was defiant, evasive, and inordinately proud of his opposition to the Yankees. His testimony was intended to cast suspicion on Weichmann, whom he had taught to use a Confederate cipher machine but it only called attention to the fact that Howell himself knew how to use the device. [pp. 357-358]

In an exchange with Lew Wallace, Aiken admitted that the process was not at fault. The general said “I understood the object of the counsel to be, to impeach not only the witness for the government, but also the fairness of the Court.” To this, Aiken replied, “No, sir; only the witness; not the fairness of the Court at all. I have no reason to complain of that. None of us have had.”[pg. 358]

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

You be the judge. Was Aiken a “pinhead” for representing Surratt in the first place, and setting himself up for the inevitable fall that would occur if/when she was found guilty? Or was he a “patriot” for undertaking a task that he knew might be ruinous to his future career? The one thing that we know for sure is that Frederick Aiken was a victim of his own inexperience as an attorney.

150 Years Ago: Battle of Ball’s Bluff Oct. 21, 1861

Ball’s Bluff was a small battle by the standards of the Civil War, but it had ramifications far beyond its size. It was only the second significant battle in the east, and received a great deal of attention in both North and South. Edward Baker, a senator from Oregon and close personal friend and political ally of President Lincoln, was killed during the battle and became a martyr to those who took a hard line against the Confederacy. Perhaps most importantly, the defeat spurred the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War by Congress; the Committee became a persecutor of those who were considered to be soft on defeating the Confederacy and destroying slavery.

George McClellan took command of Union forces around Washington, D.C., in the wake of the defeat at Bull Run in July 1861. He immediately set about training and improving the state of his army. As the good campaigning weather of fall 1861 passed, however, he began to feel pressure to advance on the Rebel forces just across the Potomac River from Washington. Probes and raids by Yankee forces over the Potomac combined intelligence gathering with training. On 19 October McClellan ordered General George McCall to conduct a reconnaissance toward the village of Dranesville, Virginia, covering a topographical survey of the area. McClellan alerted neighboring commander General Charles P. Stone of the movement and told him to keep a vigilant watch on the town of Leesburg; if the Rebels evacuated it, he could move in. A “light demonstration’ on Stone’s part would help move them on.

Stone moved one brigade to the Potomac opposite Leesburg. When an inexperienced scouting party crossed into Virginia during the night of 20 October, it mistook shadows for an unguarded Confederate camp. Stone ordered Colonel Charles Devens and 300 men to make a dawn attack. If no other Confederate forces were found, Devens was to stay on the Virginia side and conduct a further reconnaissance. When Devens found no camp, he pushed on to Leesburg, which he found empty of enemy troops. Devens requested reinforcements so that he could hold Leesburg.

When Stone ordered additional troops to join Devens, only three boats were available to ferry soldiers to the Virginia side and so movement was slow. Colonel Edward Baker was ordered to take command of the larger force, totaling 1,640 men. Baker was an inexperienced soldier, but he was also an old Illinois friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, in fact, had named his second son after Baker. After he had moved west, Baker was elected senator from Oregon. He had turned down a commission as brigadier general, because it would require his resignation from the Senate. An outspoken enemy of any who would compromise with the slaveholding South, he looked forward to an opportunity to prove his point in battle.

Baker ordered his men to form a line of battle in a clearing near the river. Immediately in the rear of his position was 100-foot Ball’s Bluff; a single narrow path led down to the Potomac. More experienced officers worried about a wooded ridge immediately in front of Baker’s line. Confederates on that height would be able to shoot down at the Union soldiers in the clearing below.

Actually, Confederate units under the command of Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans were slowly arriving on the battlefield and exchanging shots with the Yankees. At 3:00 p.m. the Confederates launched a general assault on the four regiments at Ball’s Bluff. Soon, Evans’s 1,600 Rebel soldiers in wooded cover were pouring shot into Baker’s forces in the open. For three and one-half hours, the Union soldiers held on. Baker was killed around 5:00 p.m. Unable to stand the fire and unable to retreat in an orderly manner, the Yankee formation began to crumble. Some leaped off the bluff in an attempt to reach the river, and many were killed or injured by the fall. Others climbed safely down Ball’s Bluff, but the few boats were swamped by the numbers trying to regain the Maryland side. As the Confederates fired down from the top of the bluff, boats sank and scores drowned in the river. By 7:00 p.m. the battle was virtually over and most Federal survivors were prisoners.

Union losses totaled 49 killed, 158 wounded, and 714 captured or wounded. Confederate casualties amounted to 33 killed, 115 wounded, and one man missing. The obvious disparity in losses was clear to all and trumpeted by the Confederates, while the defeat having occurred so near to Washington ensured that newspaper reporters would quickly spread the news to the rest of the country.

National Cemetery at Ball's Bluff

The effects were quickly felt in the north. For Lincoln, Baker’s death was a personal blow. When informed, Lincoln stood stunning and silent for several minutes. He walked slowly back to the executive mansion with bystanders noting tears rolling down his face. Baker was buried in a state funeral attended by the president, vice president, congressional leaders, and the Supreme Court. He immediately became a martyr to the cause of the Union, despite the fact that his inexperience had contributed to the disaster.

Nonetheless, the political establishment was intent on discovering darker motives for the disaster. Although many regular officers blamed Baker, Republicans who favored a hard war policy and the destruction of slavery blamed McClellan and Stone. On 20 December, Congress created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Representatives from both the Senate and the House of Representatives thus formed a permanent committee to inquire into and investigate how the war was being directed. Investigations were conducted in secret, and the committee was soon persecuting those suspected of having Southern sympathies.

Their first victim was General Charles P. Stone. Witnesses denounced Stone, alleging that he secretly communicated with unnamed Southerners and returned runaway slaves to their owners. He was also blamed for failing to reinforce Baker at Ball’s Bluff. The Committee took their findings to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who ordered Stone relieved of command and arrested on 8 February 1862. Stone was never tried, but enough testimony was released to the newspapers to paint him as a traitor. Stone was released from prison in August 1862, and though he served again, his military career was virtually at an end. Stone’s experience remained an example and warning to Union commanders throughout the remainder of the war.

– Tim J. Watts

[Source: Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social and Military History. W.W. Norton & Co. 2002. pp. 167-169]

Additional Links:

The U.S. Army has a detailed look at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff that was published previously as Ball’s Bluff: An Overview and is now on line. You can find that here.

The Civil War Trust has a webpage dedicated to the Battle of Ball’s Bluff with additional resources, including recent efforts to preserve the historic battlefield from development encroachment. You and find their Ball’s Bluff page here.

The Balls’ Bluff National Cemetery contains 25 burial plots containing the remains of 54 soldiers. Only one, plot #13, is identified as James Allen, a soldier from the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority began its Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Restoration program in 2004, to restore the park’s appearance to what it looked like in 1861. You can find more information about those efforts here.

You can read a brief biography of Senator-Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker here.

For further reading:

Farwell, Byron. Ball’s Bluff: A small Battle and Its Long Shadow (1990).

Grimsley, Mark. “The Definition of Disaster.” Civil War Times Illustrated (1989).

Holien, Kim Bernard. Battle at Ball’s Bluff (1985).

Stears, Stephen W. “The Ordeal of General Stone.” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History (1995).

Tap, Bruce. Over Lincoln’s Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War (1998).

Maryland seeks to buy 14 acres of land near South Mountain Civil War battlefield for $55,600

Civil War Cannons in Maryland

MIDDLETOWN, Md. (AP) — A Department of Natural Resources official says the state of Maryland is seeking to buy some land near the South Mountain Civil War battlefield.

John Braskey told The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown newspaper on Tuesday that the two parcels near Middletown total 14.6 acres. One is a 9.1-acre parcel atop South Mountain that saw action during the battle. The smaller piece has scenic value.

The land belongs to the Central Maryland Heritage League. The group says the state has offered a fair price of about $55,600.

The deal would require approval by the state Board of Public Works.

South Mountain is Maryland’s only state-run Civil War battlefield. Federal and Confederate forces clashed there on Sept. 14, 1862, three days before the Battle of Antietam.

State considering land near South Mountain State Battlefield

By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

6:21 PM EDT, August 16, 2011

The state has offered to buy land near South Mountain State Battlefield.

The parcels are the 9.1-acre Wise South Field and the 5.5-acre Mahaffey Woods, said John Braskey, the Western Maryland regional administrator for land acquisition and planning for the state Department of Natural Resources.

The land belongs to the Central Maryland Heritage League, a nonprofit group based in Middletown, Md.

Executive Director Bill Wilson said the league is interested in selling the parcels to the state. He said the state offered to pay $55,575, a price he called “eminently fair.”

He said the league is awaiting further instructions from the state on how the contract will be drawn up.

The final agreement will be sent to the state Board of Public Works for its approval.

South Mountain State Park runs along the border of Frederick and Washington counties.

The Department of Natural Resources’ website says the Civil War battle fought there on Sept. 14, 1862, was the first in Maryland and a turning point in the war.

“The Union victories at South Mountain and Antietam (fought three days later) led President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation,” the DNR’s website says.

Wilson said the Wise property, at the top of South Mountain, encompasses land around Reno Monument and is battlefield land.

The Mahaffey property is about a quarter mile away on Reno Monument Road and is part of the viewshed around the battlefield.

Both parcels have easements that don’t allow development.

Wilson said the Central Maryland Heritage League and the state have talked about a possible sale for at least five years.

The idea resurfaced recently. A July 21 letter from the Department of Natural Resources to Terry Baker, the president of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, says there is a “potential real estate acquisition” in Washington County.

The DNR contacted Washington County because the properties “straddle the county line,” the letter says.

Public re-enactment of South Mountain, Antietam battles will be held in 2012

Two-day event on private land near Boonsboro will mark 150th anniversary of Civil War battles

By HEATHER KEELS heather.keels@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN—

An estimated 4,000 Civil War re-enactors will stage a public re-enactment of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam on Sept. 8 and 9, 2012, on private land near Boonsboro, organizer Chris Anders said at a press conference Monday.

Thomas B. Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, leads a press conference Monday about the plans for the re-enactment of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam as re-enactment coordinator Chris Anders, left, and Ed Wenschhof, Antietam National Battlefield's acting superintendent and Dan Spedden, superintendent of the South Mountain Recreation Area, listen. (By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer / August 8, 2011)

The event, called “Maryland, My Maryland,” is being staged by The Southern Division, an all-volunteer re-enactment organization, and will be sponsored by theHagerstownWashington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Anders said.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Harpers Ferry might also be included, he said.

The event will be open to 2,000 spectators per day, and tickets will go on sale soon from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, he said. Tickets will cost $25 for one day or $40 for both days, CVB President Thomas B. Riford said. Those 6 and younger will be admitted free.

All proceeds from the event will go to the Central Maryland Heritage League to help preserve and interpret South Mountain State Battlefield and to Brittany’s Hope Foundation, a charity that helps with the adoption of special-needs children worldwide, Anders said.

The re-enactment will be held on about 100 acres of land at the foot of South Mountain near the intersection of Alt. U.S. 40 and Md. 67 east of Boonsboro.

“We’re setting up the event to be a very authentic event so people get a true Civil War experience,” Anders said.

Anders said he has organized about 20 re-enactments and is a partner in Rear Rank Productions, which specializes in coordinating logistical aspects of re-enactment events, such as water and signs.

His caps of 4,000 to 5,000 re-enactors and 2,000 spectators mean the event will be considerably smaller than the Battle of Antietam re-enactments staged in 1997 and 2002, which each attracted about 13,000 re-enactors and as many as 100,000 spectators.

Anders said smaller numbers will allow for higher authenticity and better views for spectators.

“The goal is that people actually see what happened in September 1862, what the troops looked like, how they camped, how they fought, not a fantasy world-type representation thereof,” he said.

Though the re-enactment commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Maryland Campaign, it is scheduled for several days before the actual dates of the battles to encourage visitors to attend commemorative events at the respective battlefields on the actual anniversary dates, Anders said.

The Battle of South Mountain was fought Sept. 14, 1862, for the possession of three mountain passes — Crampton’s, Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps — and resulted in about 6,000 casualties, Riford said.

The Battle of Antietam, three days later on Sept. 17, was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with 23,110 casualties.

Dan Spedden, superintendent of the South Mountain Recreation Area, announced at the same press conference Monday that the South Mountain State Battlefield’s sesquicentennial events will include the opening next spring of the battlefield’s first professionally designed museum exhibits.

The exhibits will be in three buildings — the visitors center at Washington Monument State Park, and the hall and lodge at Gathland State Park — and will interpret the Battle of South Mountain, Boonsboro’s Washington Monument, and the life of reporter and Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend.

The buildings that will house the exhibits are under renovation and will open in April, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May, Spedden said.

South Mountain State Battlefield’s commemorative events will include tours, hikes and living history displays each weekend beginning in June 2012. On Sept. 14 and 15, 2012, the battlefield will have living-history and artillery demonstrations, hikes and real-time battlefield tours, he said.

At Antietam National Battlefield, lectures and symposiums are scheduled throughout 2012, culminating Sept. 9 to 22 with speakers, tours, real-time hikes, Civil War-era music, a family activities tent, artillery and infantry demonstrations, and a Sept. 17 ceremony, said Ed Wenschhof, the battlefield’s acting superintendent.

On the Web
More information about the re-enactment is online at http://marylandmymaryland.marylandcampaign150.org.

On this date: April 24, 1865 – Hancock issues proclamation

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

On this date, 146 years ago – Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the following handbills printed and distributed to free blacks in the communities of Virginia and Maryland along the Potomac River. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, and David Herold, Booth’s accomplice, were still on the run after 10 days.

THE MURDER OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN

APPEAL TO THE COLORED PEOPLE!

HEADQUARTERS MIDDLE MILITARY DIVISION,

Washington, D.C., April 24, 1865

To the colored people of the District of Columbia and of Maryland, of Alexandria and the border counties of Virginia:

     Your President has been murdered! He has fallen by the assassin and without a moment’s warning, simply and solely because he was your friend and the friend of our country. Had he been unfaithful to you and to the great cause of human freedom he might have lived. The pistol from which he met his death, though held by Booth, was fired by the hands of treason and slavery. Think of this and remember how long and how anxiously this good man labored to break your chains and to make you happy. I now appeal to you, by every consideration which can move loyal and grateful hearts, to aid in discovering and arresting his murderer. Concealed by traitors, he is believed to be lurking somewhere within the limits of the District of Columbia, of the State of Maryland, or Virginia. Go forth, then, and watch, and listen, and inquire, and search, and pray, by day and night, until you shall have succeeded in dragging this monstrous and bloody criminal from his hiding place. You can do much; even the humblest and feeblest among you, by patience and unwearied vigilance, may render the most important assistance.

     Large rewards have been offered by the Government, and by municipal authorities, and they will be paid for the apprehension of this murderer, or for any information which will aid in his arrest. But I feel that you need no such stimulus as this. You will hunt down this cowardly assassin of your best friend, as you would the murderer of your own father. Do this, and God, whose servant has been slain, and the country which has given you freedom, will bless you for this noble act of duty.

     All information which may lead to the arrest of Booth, or Surratt, or Harold, should be communicated to these headquarters, or to General Holt, Judge Advocate General, at Washington, or, if immediate action is required, then to the nearest military authorities.

     All officers and soldiers in this command, an all loyal people, are enjoined to increased vigilance.

W.S. HANCOCK

Major General U.S. Volunteers

Commanding Middle Military Division

‘The Conspirator’ takes in $7 million in ten days

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Here are the latest numbers for the first ten days of ‘The Conspirator’ courtesy of the-numbers.com. The film had a budget of $25 million and has now taken in just under $7 million in ten days at the box office.

Daily Chart Record – The Conspirator

Date Rank Gross % Change Theaters Per Theater Total Gross Days
4/15/2011 10 $1,099,750   707 $1,556 $1,099,750 1
4/16/2011 11 $1,574,766 +43.19% 707 $2,227 $2,674,516 2
4/17/2011 11 $832,086 -47.16% 707 $1,177 $3,506,602 3
4/18/2011 11 $288,941 -65.28% 707 $409 $3,795,543 4
4/19/2011 12 $330,363 +14.34% 707 $467 $4,125,906 5
4/20/2011 12 $289,282 -12.44% 707 $409 $4,415,188 6
4/21/2011 13 $287,495 -0.62% 707 $407 $4,702,683 7
4/22/2011 13 $749,000 +160.53% 849 $882 $5,452,000 8
4/23/2011 13 $999,000 +33.38% 849 $1,177 $6,451,000 9
4/24/2011 13 $541,000 -45.85% 849 $637 $6,990,863 10

‘The Conspirator’ aims for accuracy

By Lewis Beale – Newsday

NEW YORK —  On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops stationed in Fort Sumter, S.C. The barrage marked the opening shots of the Civil War, a national tragedy that killed more than 600,000 people, destroyed the South economically and left a legacy of divisiveness that persists to this day.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

The war has also inspired several hundred films and TV shows, the latest of which, “The Conspirator,” starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy and directed by Robert Redford, opens today. Based on the true story of Mary Surratt, who was hanged for allegedly being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, the film is based heavily on court transcripts of her trial, and has astonishing parallels to the present-day terrorist trials at Guantanamo — Surratt was convicted by a military, not civilian, tribunal; she was not allowed to testify in her own behalf; and her defense attorney was not allowed to see the prosecution’s evidence against her.

“What this film speaks to is how moments in history do have a tendency to repeat themselves,” says James Solomon, screenwriter of “The Conspirator.” “So this is a timeless story.”

Timeless, and for the most part, historically accurate. Which is not the case with most films about the War between the States.

Filmmakers “almost never get it right,” says Gary Gallagher, author of “Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War.”

“They get it right in terms of maybe getting the book right,” Gallagher says, “like ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘The Killer Angels,’ but there aren’t many films that are accurate regarding what happened during the war.”

Filmmakers “don’t ever get it right from the historical point of view; inaccuracies always creep in,” adds Brian S. Wills, who has written “Gone With the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema.”

“A lot of times, time compression forces a story to be tighter for cinematic purposes,” he says, “and you put in language of what you thought people might say. Movies have to create something that’s plausible and realistic, but they also have to appeal to the audience, so they don’t want to go through the complications of history.”

What this means is that everything from the intricacies of tactics, to what uniforms looked like can be historically incorrect. This even extends to battlefield sequences in films like “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” which used Civil War re-enactors as extras, many of whom, said Gallagher, “are too old and larger than the average Civil War soldier (who was between 18 and 29, 5-foot-8 and 143 pounds).”

But it’s not just this historical minutiae that Civil War films get incorrect. There’s also a question of interpretation, themes about the war that have come and gone over the years.

“Movies will tell you more about the times in which they were created,” Wills says. “You have to understand the context in which that film appeared. Interpretation is not just a historical word, it’s a creative word, too.”

Hollywood’s ‘Lost Cause’

So before World War II, films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” reflected the “Lost Cause” sentiment — that the South was simply fighting for states’ rights — and were very pro-Confederate.

This was what Gallagher calls “Hollywood’s default interpretation” into the 1950s, when more nuanced treatments began to appear. Things changed “with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” he says. “‘Glory’ (the 1989 film about black Union soldiers) really signaled the dramatic shift, and every film since then reflects a more modern sensibility on race and the Emancipation Proclamation.”

And now “The Conspirator” takes Civil War — or, technically, post-Civil War — interpretations to a new level, although Solomon is quick to point out that he began working on his screenplay in 1993, before both World Trade Center attacks. But in the film, Union concerns about possible Confederate plots to commit acts of terrorism like poisoning Washington’s water supply are distant echoes of contemporary fears.

“When I started this,” he says, “I thought the story was Booth shoots the president, end of story. Issues of safety and security were abstract notions, because I wrote this long before 9/11. When I first wrote the piece, people would say ‘What an interesting story, but what is its relevance to today?'”

Whether future Civil War projects will be able to reflect contemporary issues and fears like “The Conspirator” does is a question yet to be answered. And there are other aspects of the conflict — the war on the high seas, the war in the West — that have barely been touched by Hollywood.

Yet “The Conspirator” may be plowing fertile ground for future film projects. “The fears back then were genuine,” Wills says. “They had real fears about assassinating leaders, real fears about burning cities, about crossing a line and violating civil liberties. These things that happened in the past still resonate.”

%d bloggers like this: